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Death by Soil: Is Gardening a High Risk Activity?

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Gardening is a wonderful pursuit, full of tremendous benefits. Millions of people are hopping on board, planting gardens everywhere, growing delicious food and beautiful flowers. But maybe you have heard about contaminated soil issues, which has made you hesitant to start growing. You might be wondering if gardening is a high-risk activity, something that could cause you harm. Let’s unpack the truth.

We live in scary times, and it is understandable to think that people might be concerned when they hear something about toxic or contaminated soil. This may make you wonder if you need to strap on personal protective gear just to plant a tomato or two. 

In all the years I have been gardening (over 30) I have heard about people dying from soil-borne disease and even dangerous amoebas on a very few occasions. 

With the media feeding us new and sometimes scary information about the novel coronavirus, it may seem very unsettling to hear about the possibility of becoming very ill or even dying from something as simple as gardening.

Can garden soil make me sick?

Before we dig into potential issues with the soil, it is essential to point out that gardeners have many possible threats to consider. These include pesticides, poisonous snakes and spiders, allergies, heatstroke, and over-exertion, to name a few.  

As far as soil-borne pathogens are concerned, I was surprised to find that there are quite a few that I had not ever even thought about, including:

Valley fever

Some tiny fungi live in desert dirt found in the southwestern United States. When these spores are inhaled, they can make a person pretty sick and even lead to pneumonia on windy days. According to the CDC, the numbers of valley fever have been increasing since 1998, and there were over 20,000 reported cases in 2011. This could be because there is more awareness or changes in temperature and rainfall that impact how the fungus grows and how much it is airborne.

Hantavirus

This condition is spread by rodent droppings, saliva, and urine. It can become airborne and insect gardeners and, sadly, has a pretty high mortality rate. With an increase in droughts, more and more rodents are being driven out of their wild homes, searching for food and water. This increases the likelihood of rodent droppings mingling with homesite soil.

Wound Botulism

You may be familiar with botulism as it relates to food. There is another type of botulism that can impact gardeners, called wound botulism. This condition can be contracted from the soil and, although rare, can be deadly. A germ called Clostridium botulinum enters a wound and creates a toxin. The toxin attacks the nerves, making it hard to breathe and causes muscle weakness and death.

Tetanus

When you think tetanus, you probably think rusty nail; however, the bacteria that cause tetanus lives in soil, dust, and feces. It is a significant cause of death in Asia, Africa, and South America, and there were 233 cases of tetanus in the United States between 2001 and 2008, with a 13% mortality rate.

Melioidosis

This bacterial infection is a silent killer, causing thousands of deaths each year when people contact it in muddy soil. This condition is tough to diagnose because it mimics so many other conditions. Symptoms include fever, muscle aches, cough, and abscesses. It is often referred to as the great mimicker. This condition often burdens poor and rural rice farmers in Thailand.

Helminths

Worldwide, almost 1.5 billion people are infected with parasitic worms transmitted through contaminated soil.  Persons with a light soil-transmitted helminth infection generally have little to no symptoms. Still, more significant infections can cause a wide range of symptoms, including abdominal pain, diarrhea, blood and protein loss, rectal prolapse along with other physical and cognitive challenges.

Is a brain-eating amoeba a real thing?

Recently, a story about an elderly gentleman dying from a brain-eating amoeba found in the soil shocked the garden world. The amoeba turned part of his frontal lobe into mushy liquid.

The 82-year man is believed to have come in contact with the shape-shifting organism while potting plants. He was initially treated for bacterial, fungal, and viral meningitis before becoming drowsy and suffering seizures. After nine days in the hospital, he passed.

An autopsy revealed that an amoeba had turned parts of the man’s dark matter in his brain to mush. His cause of death was a rare infection of the brain and spinal cord caused by the species acanthamoeba. This species is similar to another, Naegleria fowleri, which is generally transmitted through water in ponds and lakes.

For neurological symptoms to appear, you have to either breathe the amoeba in or have direct skin contact, so it goes into your skin and through the bloodstream.

According to researchers, while this sounds like something out of a horror movie, many people come in contact with the amoeba and do not show any symptoms. Generally, people with compromised immune systems suffer symptoms.

The deceased man had battled cancer over eleven years ago but had been in remission. Only eleven other cases exist where persons with healthy immune systems have died due to amoeba exposure.

What is the real risk to the home gardener?

Indeed, there are many diseases and lots of potential exposures, but it is important to look at the infection rates. According to data from the European Union, there are about 31 infections (all soil-borne diseases) per year, per 100,000 people. It is possible; however, that the infection rate among gardeners could be higher. 

It is crucial to keep things in perspective when looking at the data. About 5,000 out of 100,000 people in the European union get influenza each year, resulting in 8 deaths. An estimated 24,000 to 62,000 people died from flu in the United States last year. So, in most industrialized countries, the flu and now, the novel coronavirus is a much more significant threat then soil-borne diseases.

Precautions you can take

Just like we need to keep our hands washed during cold and flu season and practice social distancing with COVID-19, there are some simple things you can do to protect yourself a little better if contracting a soil-borne illness is a concern of yours. First and foremost, wear garden gloves. Since the organism needs to enter the body, which can happen through a cut in the skin, it is vital to keep your hands covered when playing in the soil. 

Another excellent gardening practice to keep yourself and your plants healthy to disinfect all garden tools regularly.

Many air-borne fungal organisms and bacteria are hard to protect yourself against unless you wear a mask while gardening, and not many of us are likely to do this. Tetanus infections can occur through cups and scrapes caused by garden tools or even rose thorns. 

What about sterile soil?

You might be wondering if sterile soil can keep you safe. The truth is, there is no such thing as sterile soil unless it was produced in a laboratory. There was a lot of publicity a while back on Legionnaires’ disease when some gardeners’ deaths were traced back to commercial potting soil. There seems to be an increase in Legionnaires in Europe and North America as more and more people are using wood-based soils instead of peat-based soils. One study revealed 79% of 33 potting soil samples in Australia tested positive for Legionnaires’ disease.

Many gardeners use aged manure or peat moss in their gardens, compounds that also contain diseased organisms.

The takeaway here is to assume that commercially bagged soil contains disease organisms.

The bottom line

There is a greater danger involved in traveling by car to your local garden center than there is digging around in your garden soil. Persons with compromised immune systems should take more precautions, but a good pair of gloves and some common sense is generally all you need to start on your gardening journey. Don’t be afraid to start digging in!

If you are interested in learning how you can grow your food without any soil at all –  check out Backyard Vitality’s MIcroGrow Starter Kit. This kit allows you to grow delicious and nutritious microgreens on your counter 365 days a year…NO SOIL NEEDED.

I know that you are going to love this easy, no mess, safe system of growing! 

-Susan Patterson

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